|Directed by:||Bill Chayes||Rating:||TV-PG|
|Release Date:||1998||Running Time:||47 mins|
|More Info:||Video spotlight on NYC Delis||Category:||America|
Making classic delicacies that please taste buds and divine providence has been the business of the Oscherwitz family for more than a century. A mouthwatering look at the kosher meats for which the family is famous, Divine Food: 100 Years in the Kosher Delicatessen Trade shares the story of Issac Oscherwitz’s rise from immigrant butcher to patriarch of a kosher food mega-corporation that still feeds Jews across America.
“I remember my mother used to say, ‘Show me an unfeeling person and I’ll show you a person who grew up on bacon and eggs,’” a man sitting at an Oscherwitz-owned deli says. “The Jew is what he eats.” Whether or not we agree with this summation, the importance of food in Jewish culture is undeniable.
Divine Food explores the significant role that food plays Jewish life, where keeping kosher adds deliberateness and reverence to the daily task of eating. The documentary reveals the step-by-step, behind-the-scenes process of butchering kosher meat and manufacturing kosher meat products, while also offering an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Oscherwitz family through personal interviews, family stories, and archival home videos.
Born in Germany, Issac Oscherwitz was a butcher who fled to America in the 1880s because of oppression and poverty. When he arrived in Cincinnati, he started his own sausage factory, which created jobs and a delicious product for the city’s surprisingly well-populated Jewish community. But the Oscherwitzes also established their public face to the community through a family-run storefront shop, where they sold their meats and other classic Jewish delicacies. Decades later, Isaac’s five sons extended the business to Chicago, which had become the center of the meat packing industry, and today the Oscherwitz family is responsible for well-known brands such as Best Kosher, Shofar, and Sinai.
Divine Food goes into the factory, where mesmerizing camera footage follows the meat along the conveyor belt as it travels past metal detectors, through water-sprayers and under the careful observation of many watchful eyes, as everything you took for granted about meat is explained by quirky, affable butchers.
It’s not easy to deliver a product that lives up to century’s-old expectations of flavor and kashrut. In fact, Oscherwitz recently introduced a new line of strictly glatt kosher meats as the demand for stricter kosher standards has risen in the Jewish community. The rabbi who certifies these products explains that the butchers handling the meat must be pious Jews and shows the careful, deliberate way in which every cut must be made in order for the meat to qualify as glatt kosher.
In addition to showcasing the delicious meats, the documentary explores the tight-knit nature of the family that makes them. The Oscherwitzes seem like a family that anyone would want to join. Archival home videos show them laughing and playing together on a warm summer day at the beach. The children run hand-in-hand and somersault around, while the adults look equally as childish, running towards the waves and waltzing in the water. “We really like each other,” one of Isaac’s grandsons says, explaining how everyone has gotten along so well throughout the generations, both at and away from work.
This familial intimacy extends beyond the immediate family members to the way they treat everyone involved in the business, from factory workers to customers. “I don’t think my husband ever felt like his customers were his customers,” one woman says, “they were his friends.” Another man, who took a job with the Oscherwitzes after he lost everything to the Holocaust, speaks highly of his employers. “It was such a family feeling,” he explaining how warm and welcoming his coworkers have been.
The appeal of a family-owned product helped make the Oscherwitz brand popular, but fiscal success has also jeopardized the family-run nature of the business. Before the swell of success, business meetings between the Oscherwitz brothers were a literal yelling contest, where arguments were won by the most powerful voice and, despite all the screaming, everyone left on good terms. But a big business couldn’t run in the same way. The documentary shares the Oscherwitzes’ inside struggles to keep their booming business family-run and shows the effects on everyone when they were bought out by a subsidiary of the Sara Lee Corporation.
But regardless of corporate politics, the simple taste of Oscherwitz meat can still stir up nostalgic pleasures of childhood. An old woman, who married into the Oscherwitz family, remembers being very young and anticipating her father’s return home from the city with a suitcase full of mouthwatering Oscherwitz meats. “I’ll remember it all my life–the aroma of that suitcase! The salami, the pastrami, and I think he even brought a little herring along,” she says. “My sisters and I couldn’t wait for him to get it all out of the suitcase so we could eat it.”
Second only to enjoying a pastrami sandwich, or maybe a little herring, Divine Food is a pretty good treat.